Simplia looked up from Norman Perrin’s reply to the question raised by Hibernating in Hibernia concerning occurrences of animals in fairy tales. He had written:
Gee… where to start…. leaving out Aesop.
There are so many animal folktales…
…Collections of tales featuring one animal:
“When God Had a Dog” by Maria Leach.
“Way Away Tales” by Edward Norman Harris has P’deh the Rabbit, a trickster from Burma.
“Kantchil’s Lime Pit And Other Stories From Indonesia” features Kantchil the Mouse Deer.
Selchie Tales, “Tales of the Seal People” by Duncan Williamson is a good example.
“Porcupines, the Animal Answer Guide,” …by Uldis Roze includes 6 folktales about porcupines.
…Jataka Tales, birth stories of the Buddha, in his many animal incarnations….
Australian Aboriginal stories of the Dream Time have many tales about how people became animals.
In other words the world of folktales is a Noah’s Ark of animal tales, and I am worried that the day may come when we know animals such as Tiger only by the stories they leave behind.
Sagacia perused the message over her short friend’s shoulder and said, “What do you mean ‘complicated’?”
“Well,” said Simplia, “out of this inventory, the stories I’d sort without hesitation into the bin marked ‘Fairy Tales,’ synonymous with ‘Wonder Tales,’ are the selchie stories. With seals effecting their magic and affecting the lives of the humans who interact with them.”
“And that’s complicated…how?” asked Sagacia.
“That’s not the complicated part. Although, parenthetically, I do maintain that the human characters would have lived much simpler lives had they not gotten involved in trans-species relationships. Still. That’s not the ‘complicated’ I’m talking about.”
Simplia poured them both a cup of peppermint tea, spread some catnip on the floor for Murzik, and collected her thoughts while Sagacia stirred, sipped, and waited patiently.
Finally, the simpler Simpleton had her conceptual ducks in a row.
“Okay…We know that folktales and fables are lousy with animal characters. And we sort of know that the animals in these stories serve as symbols for human characteristics, traits, foibles.”
“Pretty much,” agreed Sagacia.
“And then we get to wonder tales, where magical intervention is necessary to move the story along.”
“Excuse me, don’t you consider a little red hen who talks, bakes bread, and espouses a Puritan work ethic to be something on the order of magic?”
“Yes. Of course,” said Simplia. “But in the story it’s not considered so magical. Nobody inside the story is surprised that all the animals talk, much less that they’ve formed an inter-species social unit or that there’s an oven in the henhouse. That is a clearly didactic story, and in my humble opinion there’s not much Wonder to be found there. Or in fables. Or, now that I think about it, in stories like the Jataka Tales. Food for thought? Yes. Delight? Yeah…except for that self-righteous chicken. Wonder? Not so much.”
Murzik was feeling the effects of the catnip. He was batting a cough drop across the floor, pouncing on it and fantasizing about the Mailmouse, who, coincidentally, chose that moment to make an appearance. When he saw that the cat was awake and feeling frisky, he quickly folded the letter he was delivering into a paper airplane and sailed it into the living room, where it lodged in the teapot’s spout.
He took off running as fast as he could and called over his shoulder, “Airmail. Special delivery.”
It was from Tarkabarka. The Simpletons unfolded the airplane and read:
Winged Wolf, from Hungary. Not actually a real animal, but a really badass one, plus he turns from villain to helper, which I especially like. I also like the “Fox-eyed Girl” in which the fox helper turns himself into a girl to take the place of the rescued princess. Ooh, and the Syrian version of the Silent Princess where a parrot accompanies the prince on his quest, and tells stories to make the Princess talk.
Yup, there are some good ones…
“There!” said Simplia. “This is exactly what I’m talking about. When you start looking closely at the animals who are characters in fairy tales, you have fantastical beings that would never find a place in Linnaeus’s animal taxonomy. You got shapeshifters that, for reasons of their own, go from critter to human and back to critter — like selchies, or Jack in the Beanstalk becoming an ant and riding in the giant’s wife’s apron pocket. You got the humans who are trapped inside an animal’s body — like the bear in East of the Sun, West of the Moon or the princes who got turned into wild swans. There are the animals the hero has to be willing to kill for the magic to take effect. And then you have flat out magical animals like the Golden Phoenix. Not forgetting animal extensions of magical human-like creatures — I’m thinking of Baba Yaga’s horsemen that ride through the forest at different times of the day.”
Sagacia nodded sagaciously and said, “So really there’s more to consider than simple occurrences of animals in fairy tales. It would also be interesting to consider the circumstances under which these animals become animals — birth, personal decision, enchantment…”
“Yes! And there’s also what animal kingdom they come from and why? Mammals, birds, fishes. The King of the Mackerels? How unlikely an agent of magic is he? The woman who took a snake for a husband? Creepy. But a powerful story. And you kind of have to ask yourself, Why make it a snake she had to marry? Why not a cow for a husband?”
Sagacia was up and looking for her shawl.
“Alrighty then,” she said. “Let’s head out the Fairy Tale Lobby and see what our Magical Friends have to say about all this.”